"The interests of the wealthy": How the rich control politicians -- even more than you think

Esteemed political scientist Michael Jay Barber tells Salon why America is a democracy ... for fat-cat donors

Published February 27, 2015 1:30PM (EST)

 Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein                                          (<a href=''>lev radin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)
Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein (lev radin via Shutterstock/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)

The American populace, as a whole, is not always a paragon of good judgment. Yet there's at least one issue that they've got a pretty good handle on — the incredible degree of what Lawrence Lessig has described as a form of legalized corruption, and the detrimental effect it has on the U.S. government overall. Polling on this question can get a little tricky, because it can be difficult to know for sure what respondents are thinking of when they answer the question). But when Americans are asked to list the nation's most pressing concerns, it's become quite normal to find a dissatisfaction with government, or a concern about ethics and corruption, at or near the top.

According to a new study from Brigham Young University professor Michael Jay Barber, Americans' sense that their government doesn't work for them but rather for the wealthy and powerful is well-placed. In his research, Barber found what many might expect and fear — that politicians are paying much more attention to their financial backers than to anyone else. Constituents included. And even in this era of Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and Wall Street supremacy, the distance between what voters want and what politicians care about is even greater than you'd think.

Recently, Salon spoke with Barber over the phone to discuss his findings, how he reached them, and their possible implications for how Americans should understand their own government. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the consensus view of the relationship between donors and politicians in the field right now? What was the context, in a sense, in which you did this research?

The initial reason that I started looking into this was because we as political scientists ... didn’t really have great data that allowed us to look at the opinions of donors and whether or not those opinions aligned well with the behavior of legislators.

I think we all suspected that there would be a very close agreement of those opinions, because of the fact that legislators raise incredibly large amounts of money every two years and they’re continually having to go back to these contributors to ask for more money. But we really didn’t have great data on the opinions of these contributors.

Part of the reason is that they’re a really hard population to contact. Typical surveys that are conducted at the national level, some of those people are going to be donors, but not most of them. When you think that the donor population is less than 5 percent of the U.S. population, if you’re taking a random sample of the U.S. population then you’re not going to have enough people who have contributed money to really make any sort of meaningful inferences from that data.

So I suppose just a lack of data is what initially drew me to the question and I thought, “Well, perhaps we could just conduct a survey that was completely made up of people who have contributed money.”

How did you design the survey in such a way as to clear those hurdles?

The way that we conducted the survey was [that] anyone who has given more than $200 to a federal candidate is legally required to register with the FEC, and part of that registration is they have to give their name and their address, who they gave money to, how much they gave, their profession they work in if they do work. So we went into that file, which is publicly available, and we sampled people based on their address and where they lived, and then we contacted them through the mail.

Once people were taking the survey, we asked them a variety of questions about their opinions on a whole bunch of different policy issues that are relevant and have been debated recently in Congress. Once we had surveyed people on those issues, we also used data from a large survey of voters — not necessarily donors — and in that survey there were several similar questions about how people felt about different policies that had been debated in the last few years.

What that allowed us to do was to use the survey of donors and say, this is the typical or average opinion on these issues among the donor population and then, at the same time, we could use this other survey and say, this is the average opinion on these same issues but among non-donors. Then we could see how the legislators actually vote on these issues

What did you find?

What we found, when we looked senator-by-senator, was that the opinions of donors and the behavior of senators are very closely aligned, whereas the opinions of the typical voter in a senator’s state were not nearly as closely connected.

Can you give me an example of an issue or policy where the gap was most noticeable?

In political science, we use a method that basically takes all of these opinions that people express and more or less calculates what we call an ideal point, but what that really means is, where would you place the person on a left/right continuum? So what we can do with that is then you can more or less look at the congruence between donors and senators.

In this particular paper, I looked at senators. You can look at the degree of congruence, ideological congruence, between donors and senators and all these different groups. The results were that there’s nearly perfect congruence between donors and senators. When you look at voters and their senators, there’s not nearly as much congruence.

What we find is that there’s about the same amount of ideological agreement between voters and their real senators as there is between voters and ... randomly assigned senators. That’s bad news for voters in that the amount of representation that they receive from senators doesn’t appear to be much more than if they were randomly assigned to a particular senator in the country.

Do these findings challenge any major tenets of how political science views the relationship between donors and senators?

I think that this is one of those studies that when you see the results you think, “I kind of thought that was the case but I didn’t really have any evidence at hand to confirm what my suspicion was.” There are lots of times when we have a gut feeling about what might be going on in politics, or in any of the social sciences, but we don’t necessarily have data or any sort of rigorous studies that confirms what we think might be going on.

In this case, as I talk to people and tell them about the results, I don’t think that I’m necessarily busting the conventional wisdom, but perhaps confirming the conventional wisdom with better data and more rigorous analysis than has been brought to the question before.

Now, given the outsize influence of donors, isn't it also the case that they tend to be more ideological than voters?

It definitely appears as though that’s the case. Donors tend to be much more loyal to a particular party than non-donors. They tend to hold much more consistent views, they toe the party line in terms of they know all of the issues that the party has a position on and they know what the correct answer is to those issues.

For example, it doesn’t necessarily make sense, outside of American politics it doesn’t necessarily make sense that being pro-choice on issues like abortion should necessarily also mean that you favor redistributive tax policies. Those two things don’t naturally go together. But in American politics, those are both very strongly Democratic issues. Donors are very consistent in knowing these are all the issues that go with my party and my ideology and I know what the “correct” answer is to those questions.

In addition to that, they tend to also hold positions that are more on the extremes of the policy scale than non-donors. Extreme not necessarily to mean good or bad, but just more dramatic policy change than perhaps something more incremental. Donors seem to hold those opinions more so than non-donors.

What implications, if any, do you think these findings have in terms of how Americans understand their system of government?

There are a variety of studies that are emerging that all tell the story that the American system of representation is significantly tilted toward the interests of elites and the wealthy. I think when we think about how policy is made and how policy is implemented, I think we’re learning more and more that those decisions favor the interests of the wealthy much more than the interests of the typical American.

In some cases, the interests of the wealthy and the typical American align, but when those interests are not aligned it’s definitely the case, at least from the research that’s emerging, ... that the interests of the wealthy more often than not trump the interests of the typical American or the typical voter.

That's somewhat troubling for our ... idea of equal influence [among voters] across the country. These results seem to run counter to that idea, which seems to be an image that we hold in the United States, that that’s something that we want in our government.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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